Katherine Heigl: it’s okay when the boys do it

I’ve been hearing about Katherine Heigl’s eyebrow-raising refusal to submit her name for Emmy consideration because she thought the Grey’s Anatomy scripts hadn’t handed her anything Emmy worthy. I didn’t even bother reading about it, because I figured most of the response would be indignation – how dare she admit a money-making show doesn’t rise to her creative standards? How dare she have standards? How dare she do what she thinks is right? And even the more distant coverage assumed it was a ruse to get a raise or get out of her contract or something. I mean, she couldn’t just have an opinion, right? And most importantly, she’s not grateful for her job, which so many people would kill to have.

A reader named Terry sent me to this article, which puts a refreshing light on it. It talks about examples of male actors who’ve shunned Hollywood’s sacred cows and the reaction they got, starting with Paul Newman not showing up to receive an Oscar for The Color of Money:

And yet, that tough-guy persona enhanced his public image as a man of integrity who lived on his own terms, Gabler said. Newman’s awards-hating colleagues included Marlon Brando and George C. Scott, who refused an Oscar for his grandiose performance in 1970’s “Patton.” Brando sent a Native American surrogate to turn down his statuette when he won best actor in 1972 for “The Godfather.”

Heigl, on the other hand, simply declined to put her name in consideration for an Emmy bid.

But it was her reasons for doing so that ignited a media firestorm, fueled by this statement: “I did not feel that I was given the material this season to warrant an Emmy nomination and in an effort to maintain the integrity of the academy organization, I withdrew my name from contention. In addition, I did not want to potentially take away an opportunity from an actress who was given such materials.”

Heigl’s announcement spread swiftly online, where it was variously heralded, ridiculed and hashed out by a vocal mob eager to weigh in.

I’m preaching to the choir when I point out that men – white ones, at least – doing these things get viewed very differently than women do. Most of you who read this already believe that. What’s refreshing is to see that CNN gets it too:

But outspoken female stars such as Heigl could run into problems keeping an audience just by dint of gender.

“I think women have a much more difficult time, because when a woman makes demands as Barbra Streisand always did, I think they’re more likely to say, ‘What the hell does she want?’ You don’t see it in the same terms of integrity and honesty. It’s a harder sell,” Gabler said.

Kim Basinger’s career, for example, pretty much went downhill for awhile after she refused to appear in 1993’s “Boxing Helena,” in which a woman is forced to live in a box after her limbs are amputated by a surgeon in a desperate act of courtship. Basinger, who said she was put off by the film’s gratuitous sex scenes, was sued for breach of contract and ordered to pay $7.4 million in damages. She filed for bankruptcy but had a comeback in 1997 with “L.A. Confidential,” for which she won an Oscar for supporting actress.

Indeed, actresses — especially those with conventionally attractive looks such as Heigl and Basinger — are largely expected to play the game, shut up and smile, while demanding actors such as Sean Penn are handed creative control and respect, among eye rolls.

“In this town, women who don’t just snap and say, ‘OK, yes sir, yes ma’am,’ start to get a reputation for being difficult,” she said last year in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. “But within the last five years, I’ve decided it’s not worth it to me to be pushed around so much.”

Exactly. And it’s not just actresses. Female writers are expected to have brains and opinions – it’s usually even appreciated – but they’re supposed to understand that market forces coerce Hollywood into making sexist films. If they keep making a good case for how it’s really that box office returns are being interpreted incorrectly to justify making sexist films, they’re warned no one will take them seriously if they keep up that silly talk.

In every walk of life, men are perceived as having a right to stand up for what they believe and/or “misbehave” – no matter how we disagree with what they’ve said or done. Women who step out of line are perceived as needing punishment – a good spanking to teach us our places. Additionally, our motives are more likely to be treated as suspect – it can’t be that we really believe what we’re saying. We must have an agenda.

As for Hollywood’s insistence on treating her remarks as a slap against the writers, I find that disingenuous at best. I think it’s a smokescreen. She was deliberately vague because she knows – just as they do – that writers don’t get to write whatever they want. Scripts are shaped by network demands, producer’s opinions, etc. Heigl isn’t singling anyone out. What she’s actually saying is: you can have a successful show that’s not artistically worth much. Who didn’t know that already, and what cave have they been living in?

I’d honestly forgotten about this until I was halfway through writing the article, but Heigl and I have one more thing in common besides being outspoken about when film and TV get it wrong: years ago I worked as an extra on a low-budget movie in which Heigl starred back before she hit it big. Funnily enough, I remember watching her work and noting she seemed very uncertain – not of herself, as I initially thought, but of the movie. I quickly came to share her misgivings. The assistant director told the crew (and all us extras) to applaud and cheer whenever she finished a take. She was very gracious about the cheering, but you could tell she wasn’t buying it.

And she was right – the movie was intended to be a golden turkey (so bad it’s kinda good), but they didn’t have the formula quite right. It got released straight to DVD, and I doubt a copy ever sold for more than $4.99. No one submitted their names for the Academy’s consideration. Gosh, we’re such rebels.


  1. sbg says

    I was actually just now contemplating how to work this into an article. You’ve done it better than I ever could.

    I have read snippets about this needlessly controversial kerfuffle, and have been sitting here wondering why she’s not being applauded more openly. She did nothing more than reveal true feelings, and at that she did it in a completely respectable, vague-enough way.

    Also, naive little me is always surprised when people drag out the slurs against a woman’s looks, weight, etc. when they don’t like what she’s said. Some of the comments on blogs are nasty. Compare it to the Christian Bale possible assault news from last week, on which many people were all “we don’t care, he’s still talented and I like him.” There’s been a lot of support for Heigl as well, but the attacks are often intensely personal. Note: I am not saying Bale actually did commit assault, but if a woman had been brought in on charges of battery, I’m fairly certain the reaction would not be to dismiss it and focus on her talent.

    Naive little me also thinks Hollywood would benefit from more honesty and a break from smoke and mirrors. Yes, we all want to escape reality for a while and live in a fantasy world…but when the fantasy world is set within a fantasy world it starts getting warped and sickly. I never get it when an actor/producer/writer is slammed for saying something honest.

  2. Nice says

    Awesome article, and comment above. I agree with everything you stated. I also watched Bug Buster, and that was bad. I just watched that movie merely for Katherine Heigl in it. Talk about paying your dues lol, and last season was probably the worst season for Grey’s Anatomy. I’m proud of what she did. I’m still surprise many actors from that show put themselves in consideration, and taking semi-finalist spots away from actors who actually deserved it.

  3. says

    The judging-women-infinitely-more-harshly thing is something I saw a HUGE – and baffling – amount of in fanfic coms. In those cases, it was almost entirely being done by female authors, who had entirely assimilated the What The Men Do Is Always Right viewpoint, and so would characterize Jean Grey or Galadriel as “hateful bitches”, or Buffy or Luthien as cruel bitches, for taking charge, telling the men in their lives what to do, or telling other men where to get off…or Eowyn as a selfish bitch for doing exactly what they cheered her brother on for doing. (Double-plus-good when the posters were themselves guilty of Sue-age!)

    I suspect I saw a lot of that going on in the Erfworld forums, too, where a female exra/secondary character was claimed by a LOT of posters to have deserved getting killed, for repeatedly pushing the bounds of her orders, going above and beyond the call of duty for the sake of the mission as a whole. Nobody EVER says that about a Captain Kirk or a John Rambo or a John Shepherd, even when they’re going above-and-beyond for purely personal pride reasons, amirite? (Except for us cantankerous contrarian sorts, of course.)

    It goes with the judging-articles-as-better/worse based on the gender of the author’s name, etc etc etc. (Read a recent anecdote where a husband-and-wife proved this in a class they were both taking, swapping papers to see if the husband always got the highr grade no matter which of them wrote the paper, after getting fed up…)

  4. MaggieCat says

    The problem I have with applauding Heigl for this is that: I think she’s a really mediocre actress, so to me at least it just looks rather presumptuous to assume that she was going to be nominated. Even when I liked the character of Izzie (and I did, a lot at the beginning) I was still shocked that Heigl won for Best Supporting over Sandra Oh and Chandra Wilson since in my opinion she’s no where near their league. And while the writing on Grey’s helped pick up the slack back then, it’s fallen badly across the board. She’s not the only one who was given crap to work with, but she sure didn’t help as much as some of the others did. (Yeah I gave up on the show ever being watchable again ages back, but I got sucked back into some reruns a few months ago. They cast Brooke Smith, that’s cheating!)

    So there’s this cynical part of my brain that kicks in and can’t help but point out that she’s certainly getting a lot more attention for declining to be considered than she would have if she’d simply not been nominated, which I was pretty sure was what was going to happen before this. The line between “honest” and “desperate for attention” is sometimes fuzzy. I absolutely agree that much of the criticism that she’s encountered for this is unfairly off topic and sexist, and that a male actor probably wouldn’t be getting half as much, but I can’t cheer her on either. Funny thing is that I’d probably be less inclined to wonder in that direction if her comments were more direct, but they’re not– it’s all vague and indeterminate but guaranteed to kick off a flurry. I’ll feel sorry if I’m proven wrong at some point, but I still can’t shake the reaction entirely.

  5. sbg says

    Even when I liked the character of Izzie (and I did, a lot at the beginning) I was still shocked that Heigl won for Best Supporting over Sandra Oh and Chandra Wilson since in my opinion she’s no where near their league.

    I admittedly only watched GA when Jeffrey Dean Morgan was guesting. I’m a sucker for his pretty face. And in that last episode of his, I think Heigl did act her socks off. But I can see your point.

    Still, I’m not sure that invalidates the reason she gave for declining the nom. Perhaps it would have been better had she said she herself didn’t earn it, not that the material hadn’t given her anything to work with. Both are probably true…but I’d bet she’d still get some sort of backlash. The “she didn’t earn it” would probably give her oodles of sympathy, which to me seems like it would be a better tactic for attention-getting.

  6. sbg says

    MaggieCat, know what you mean about mixed reactions. I have them about the Kiera Knightley breast photoshopping thing.

    Good for Kiera for standing up, but she’s not the first and she, sadly, won’t be the last. I am really starting to hate PhotoShop.

  7. E says

    I’m a Grey’s fan–the story this year for Izzie was AWFUL with a capital AWFUL.

    I was glad she declined it. Emmy has an annoying habit of re-rewarding past winners in lieu of someone else. And she has every right to speak out about that storyline. It was stupid and terrible and insulting to the character and women in general.

    Heigl and Sara Ramirez’ character fighting over the character played by TR Knight? Please. That’s as fictional as anything.

  8. says

    Maggie, I considered that side of it. I’m not too familiar with Heigl’s work, but I consider some of the men who’ve issued their opinions like this to be pompous wastes of space and I still feel it’s important THAT they say what they think, whether I like it or not. Part of my feeling on this comes from the fact that after Brad Pitt said he didn’t think a lot of The Devil’s Own, they started writing into contracts that actors could NOT express opinions on movies during promotion. I found that a bit too fascist, especially considering 99% of movies are at least “a little sexist/racist/etc.” and it prevented actors from making those points (as well as points about artistic merit).

    So your point is taken and I’m not defending what she said or what she meant – I’m defending her right to say it, and mostly harping on the fact that if a man had said it, the backlash wouldn’t be so big nor so personal.

  9. MaggieCat says

    So your point is taken and I’m not defending what she said or what she meant – I’m defending her right to say it, and mostly harping on the fact that if a man had said it, the backlash wouldn’t be so big nor so personal.

    Oh, I totally get that that’s what you were saying– and she clearly has the right to say whatever she wants without being subject to the kind of vicious attacks that seem to be reserved exclusively for women who dare utter anything remotely negative, while men who do the same get praised for honesty and individuality. I was just throwing my opinion out there for reference’s sake. Possibly because I remember seeing this covered someplace (damn, I cleared my browser history and now have no idea where it was) where there was no chance of anyone saying anything negative because the comments thread had turned into a vortex of ego stroking and “she’s the most awesome thing ever and GA needs her more than she needs them” and it bugged because I disagree and even while thinking the backlash itself was unfair, I wasn’t able to explain why I wasn’t about to throw her a parade and hold her up as a champion without courting an attack.

    (I can think of several male actors over the years that I’ve thought might have been trying for attention in similar circumstances; but yanno, people should be able to say whatever they want just as I’m free to choose whether or not to believe it. What can I say? I’m naturally suspicious of everyone.)

  10. Tiny Writer says

    Without going into the issue of exactly how this incident may or may not have been blown up in the media and ignoring the larger context of your point about how women are generally expected to play the part of the demure, good little girl, the fact is that Heigl’s comments were churlish and insulting.

    The classy thing to do would have been to quietly withdraw her name from consideration (actually, simply by not submitting it at all) and leaving it at that.

    Instead, she showed great insensitivity and arrogance towards the people who work with her on the show.

    Hell, I personally don’t like “Grey’s Anatomy” at all and I have, in fact, no respect for the writers who churn out that piffle, but I still think Heigl was out of line. Show some class for your teammates, Katherine.

  11. says

    The classy thing to do would have been to quietly withdraw her name from consideration (actually, simply by not submitting it at all) and leaving it at that.

    Get your facts straight. She never submitted her name. There was no withdrawing – she simply, silently, did not submit. Then the press asked her why not.

    What answer, do you suppose, would not have prompted a backlash of juicy gossip headlines from the press? Any version of “no comment” or total non-response would have caused them to start speculating. If she said she didn’t feel the need to submit this year, she’d have been accused of dissing the Emmys and/or her creative team.

    Her response was so vague and diplomatic, we don’t even know what she meant. Check this out, from co-star Chandra Wilson:

    Wilson said, “It’s amazing to me that it got so blown out of proportion. If you ask every single actor on every single show they’ll tell you the same thing. Some years you submit, some years you don’t.”

    She explained, “I think the public doesn’t understand — it’s not about your body of work — it’s about the show [and] especially when you deal with the drama category, it has to be high drama. It can’t be something in the middle.”

    I think what is really setting off the “uppity bitch” backlash is her second remark, that she didn’t want to “potentially” take a chance away from someone else. I believe that’s striking people as high and mighty, as if she’s bound to win if she submits.

    Well, gee, let’s look at that for a minute. She fits the narrow Hollywood beauty standard to a T. Now, the people who award Emmys and Oscars are not studious people with masters degrees in cinema who sit around evaluating this stuff carefully. They’re just pros in the industry who vote for their pals or whomever they’d most like to boff. They often don’t even watch the shows/movies. So, yeah, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that had she submitted, she really might have won, and it certainly wouldn’t be the first time one human being got something another deserved more.

    And again, it may just be she’s churlish. But it takes some inference to get there, and you could just as easily infer she’s highly concerned about her beauty privilege giving her unearned benefits. It would be best to infer nothing and to treat this as the non-issue it really, really is.

    It’s also very possible the entire thing is a publicity stunt, and everyone from the show’s creators to her publicists worked together to arrange it. Or else she thought her remark to the press was clear, and when they realized it wasn’t, they decided instead of her simply clarifying the remark so it would go away, they’d let the controversy continue to generate buzz for the show. Because you’ve got to wonder why she hasn’t clarified, and yet the show’s creator says she’ll be back next year with a juicy new storyline. 😉


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